Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Song and dance routine

Dorris called the other day for someone to come pick her up from her hotel because Marx forgot to get her.

When I got to the Arbors I told her that she was not in a hotel; this was where she was living.

"Here?  Why do I live here?"

"Because this place has many people who can help you and keep you safe."

"I have been calling Marx all day to get him to come pick me up from this hotel."

"Marx is dead.(I used to say he’s gone to heaven, but then she said “I think we can just say he is dead.")

"He’s dead?  How long?"

"He’s been dead for two years now."

"I remember you’ve told me that, but I always seem to forget it.  I think I need to live some place where I can get some help with my memory."

"You do; you live here."

"Here?  All I know is I have been sleeping some place new every night and every place has one of these black couches. "

"Dorris, this is your room and your couch".

"No, I don’t think so."

Sometimes my conversations with Dorris’ memory spin around in such a tight circle that I want to put my head between my knees and brace myself for a crash landing.

Years ago I learned about whale songs.  Apparently, whales sing a song back and forth to each other and each passing of the song changes a small part of it.  After a year of passing the same song, they are singing something completely new. I think this is a good description of conversation with Dorris. So much of it repeats, but usually there is some new twist.  Some things are important enough to stay in the song – things like Marx’s passing -  and others are replaced with new concerns.

The other day she told me she was getting forgetful about her forgetfulness and that worried her. I didn’t know how to respond and waited a bit for her to elaborate. Then she quietly shared that she is struggling to remember names of loved ones who live close by. 

What an interesting way to tell me she senses a change in her memory loss.  What a good reminder to me that her memory loss is not a loss of intelligence, nor is it a complete loss of what makes Dorris so uniquely Dorris.  She walked, for many years, with her parents and her husband as they slipped into the hole that is dementia.  She is losing her memory, not what she learned during those long years. 

I wonder if this little song and dance between Dorris and her loved ones is an example of our song and dance with sin?  God reaches out to us and we respond with the same familiar, but perhaps slightly changed, choreography. God patiently responds with forgiveness and His Spirit reminds us of our need to change and our need for Him.

For me the song usually starts with a few steps of “ lack of trust.” From there I move on to a descant of “depending on myself” which segues nicely into a verse or two of” selfishness and pouting.”  God has watched this song and dance for many years.  I change some of the steps, add in a new refrain, and continue on my merry way, dancing off of the walls of my worry;  leading myself further away from the One who saves me.  The One who can finish my song in the way He intended. Then, ever so smoothly, God spins me back to Him.

Paul and I have found with Dorris that it is best to simply respond and reassure. If we try too hard to counter her insistence, we only create more insecurity. We just answer, and repeat, and repeat, and repeat. Words mean little, but human presence means everything.

And so it is with my relationship with God. His love and understanding are more than I can even begin to comprehend. I spin in my sin and worry. He answers, and repeats, and repeats, and repeats. 

The Lord is my strength and my song,
    and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
    my father's God, and I will exalt him. Exodus 15:2

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. John 10: 27-28

My soul also is greatly troubled.
    But you, O Lord—how long?
Turn, O Lord, deliver my life;
    save me for the sake of your steadfast love. Psalm 6: 3-4

Monday, October 14, 2013

The thankful leper

This past Sunday I traveled, with my father, to a church in rural Nebraska where Dad preached on the appointed Gospel reading.  The topic was the story of the 10 lepers and the sermon was a carefully revised and updated version of one of his father’s sermons.  It was a joy to sit in the front pew and learn from God as he worked through my father and grandfather, a beautiful message and a touching legacy.

I was reminded of one of my favorite teaching stories.  I had a mother of one of my first graders call me to relate that her son was convinced that I, and nine of my friends, had been healed of leprosy and that I was the only one who thanked Jesus.  I’d like to think I would remember to thank Jesus, but I know myself better than that.  However, I did adjust my Bible story telling procedures for that school year.

After I dropped my father off at his home, for a well-deserved nap, I continued home from Seward.  My thoughts drifted to a book about leprosy that I read many years ago.  It was co-written by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey and is called Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants.   It has since been re-released as The Gift of Pain.

I remember pouring over this book, ruminating on it, and finding it changing my outlook on life and my reaction to the events of my life.  Dr. Brand spent a lifetime working with people with leprosy.  While his life story is very interesting, what stunned me was the basic premise of the book: without pain, we lose everything.

When Dr. Brand began his work with Lepers, the medical community assumed that wounds that did not heal and subsequent loss of digits and limbs was a symptom of the disease.  What Dr. Brand’s work was able to show was that these occurrences, so prevalent in leprosy patients, were caused, not by the disease, but by the lack of pain.  People who do not feel pain in their feet take every step the same way which causes wounds that do not heal because the compromised areas are not favored or protected.  Eventually a Leper will destroy a foot, by continuing to walk on a wound.  This happens, not because the flesh is bad, but because there is no pain to give warning.   The lack of pain can cause the blessing of being able to walk to be destroyed. 
Pain is good for us.  Pain is partly responsible for the blessings we have in our life, not only for our appreciation of those blessings, but also for our being able to keep and enjoy them.

Recalling this book made me take a new look at the story of the 10 Lepers.  When they discovered they were healed, their hearts would have been filled with indescribable joy.  They would no longer be unclean, no longer exiled, no longer a danger to their loved ones.  I am sure their heads were as full as their hearts. 
But, we must remember that the miracle that restored their skin and their health would have also restored their sense of pain.  They would have felt every stone as they walked to the temple, felt the sun’s heat on their heads and necks.  They would have felt the pain of walking on blisters. Only one Leper returned to offer thanks.   Perhaps he was the only one able to say thank you for pain. 

Pain is  a part of our earthly life.  We sin, we cause pain, we experience pain. That pain brings us to God, just as our sin brings us to repentance.  If we pray for no pain, just as if we prayed for no guilt, the formula would no longer work. There was no need for pain in a perfect, sinless world, but our current world not only causes it, it requires it for survival.

I am a  wimp about any kind of pain – physical, emotional, or spiritual.  I want an easy carefree life.  Pain mucks things up and ruins the perfect picture.  Pain is a hindrance, a distraction, an annoyance, a grievance.  But, pain is a blessing.  It makes us stop what we are doing and listen.  Pain makes us act. It makes us move. It protects our hands, our feet, our eyes, and our faith. 

Pain in our feet makes us adjust our step, ever so slightly. Pain in our hands warns us of the danger of what we are touching. Pain in our eyes causes us to blink and tear up.  Pain in our soul shows our repentant heart that we need the One who offers forgiveness; that we need the One who offers peace. 

Today I stood with friends in pain, excruciating pain caused by loss, by anger, by grief, by their love for each other.  I wished with a fervent heart that I could take away the pain, or that God would. 

Instead, I held them up to our Father, in prayer, and I cried with them.  Instead, God reminded them that they are His.

If we have pain, we are alive. If we have pain, we are hearing from our bodies, our hearts and our faith.
If we have pain, we are reminded that we are precious children of a God who loves us and cares for us, even as He forgives us.

For I am ready to fall, and my pain is ever before me. 
 I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin. 
Psalm 38: 17-18

But I am afflicted and in pain; let your salvation, 
O God, set me on high! I will praise the name of God with a song;
 I will magnify him with thanksgiving.
 Psalm 69:29-30

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. 
Revelation 21:4